Too Much Information: When Social Media Spills Into The Workplace

Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 11 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

There seems to be this idea floating around that HR people shouldn’t be on Facebook. Or that they they can be on Facebook but they shouldn’t know what an employee might be doing with their online presence.

The idea of HR as snoops isn’t new. We’re the investigators at times. When someone was using a chat system to sexually harass a co-worker, guess who had to go through chat logs to verify it? That’s right: HR. And let me tell you something, you do not want to go through chat logs in general. People say awful things in this faux private world.

Now though, that trend has taken a turn as employers get slammed for “Googling” employees or stalking employees on Facebook when they are on their own time. After all, what you do outside of work is your own business, right?

Sure, until it’s not.

The impact beyond work

There are some who are outraged at the idea that anything you do outside of work could impact anything at work. That is until they realize that life happens: births and adoptions happen, illnesses happen, and deaths happen. And while those might directly impact your ability to be at work, other things in life impact performance such as divorce, mental health, financial strain, elder care, or kids moving back home when they are 28. Then there are still other things like interactions with co-workers off hours or trouble with the law that can have serious impact on your work. As someone who has dealt with all of these, trust me, they impact us and we feel it.

So let’s not pretend that this is a new issue. Life impacts work because work is a part of life. Asking for a separation is like living in a world of denial. We can accept that life and work intermingle and are one, or, we can constantly find ourselves redefining and re-imagining barriers that frankly only existed in an employee handbook.

Social media impact

Of course, before social media the boundaries were pretty set. Unless you were interviewing for a job with the Secret Service, you could expect most background checks to be non-invasive and one time. Then again, information was hard to find. Nobody knew about the video that you made with your friends about how annoying your customers are because it sat in your living room, collecting dust, and your mom probably taped over it to catch the season finale of Designing Women.

Now employees expect living room privacy while living their life on a virtual stage. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum either as anyone with a computer can find out the same information as you can. Questionable but otherwise boring stuff usually isn’t the issue, but when you get into some serious issues with publicly posted material, then you get the stuff that makes headlines.

Is information always power though? Can seeing and knowing too much really be that terrible?

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Nuance in the age of openness

Being in that position is a double-edged sword. If you don’t know about the serious stuff that could most certainly impact the business, the boardroom is going to come knocking on your door in HR asking you tough questions. And perhaps even you too wouldn’t want a business development employee who can’t hold their liquor at social events and doesn’t have the good judgment to leave those pictures off the Internet.

But employees deserve privacy as well. We owe it to them to not go snooping unnecessarily and to take care with the information we do collect. As a matter of respect to the people you’ve chosen to employ though, privacy seems to be one of the big trigger points. And just because you can look now doesn’t mean you should.

The third factor here is the employees who snoop on other employees and then bring the information to HR. If you think most HR departments have time to stakeout hundreds of employee profiles, you’re simply wrong. Most are reports from other employees (probably the same ones who narced on you for leaving your old food to rot in the refrigerator).

Question, educate, and discipline only when necessary

HR professionals are going to have to take a nuanced view of how this information truly impacts work, how they should handle those types of situations, and what sorts of disciplinary measures (if any) are necessary. Those taking an all or nothing approach to social media are generally the losers because they don’t trust themselves to be nuanced (and that’s a larger problem).

What I would advise HR folks to do is to question anything online before you take any action (non-assumptive please), educate them about your policies/what other coworkers will see (that means you need to be educated), and discipline only when the impact on work calls for it.

What are your thoughts on this?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.